THE POETRY OF DELICATE SHADING.
THE most popular poetry is that which makes broad and deep impressions,—not always very fine, not always very true, but always very rousing. It was this which made Byron the idol of a whole generation, and that made his death the great event which struck a sort of paralysing
shock into the hearts of all educated, and indeed half- educated, Englishmen. As Matthew Arnold said :—
"When Byron's eyes were shut in deatb, We bowed our head and held our breath. He tauizlit us little, but our soul Had felt him like the thunder's roll. With shivering heart the strife we saw Of passion with eternal law;
And yet with reverential awe We watched the fount of fiery life That served for that Titanic strife."
That, however, has not been the characteristic of any of the finer poets who followed him. If we had to describe the most characteristic poetry of the present century, we should say that it was the poetry of shading, the poetry of delicate discrimina- tion between feelings and effects of the differences between which little notice had been taken till they were detected by the finer sensitiveness of an age which had learned to distinguish between one feeling and another closely allied to it, between one object and another of the same general type, but differ- ing from it in various half-tones and subdued touches. Shelley, for instance, was far greater than his contemporary, Byron, in these subdued touches. A delicate American poet of modern Boston,* whom Mr. John Lane has just introduced to the English public, devotes his small book almost entirely to the attempt to select and make audible some half-tone of perception or thought or feeling which is too fine for the attention and discrimination of ordinary men ; but when he meets Shelley on his own ground, he falls far below him. For instance, take the following, which he calls "Love's Autograph ":—
" Once only did he pass my way.
'When wilt thou come again ?
Ah, leave some token of thy stay!'
He wrote (and vanished) 'Pain.'"
That surely is a recollection of one of Shelley'e most exquisite little poems in the "Prometheus Unbound":-
"Ah. sister, Desolation is a delicate thing.
It walks not on the earth, it floats not in the air ; But treads with silent footstep and fans with silent wing The tender hopes which in their hearts the best and gentlest bear, Who soothed to false repose by the fanning plumes above And the music-stirring motion of its soft and busy feet, Dream visions of aerial joy, and call the monster Love, And wake, and find the shadow Pain, like him whom now we greet."
The idea is expressed with much concentration and simplicity in Love's Autograph," but with much less delicate profusion of effect than in Shelley's song. The great poet of our own day, Tennyson, is characterised by the same magical power of delineating the finer shades of perception, impression, feeling, and memory. When he says in one of his most lovely lyrics,—
" And I would that my tongue could utter The thoughts that arise in me,"— h. only expresses a yearning which was profusely gratified • Poems. Ey John B. T.1)13. London: John Lie. Boston: Copohnd and Day. in almost all the finest touches of his finest poems. He
tells us,— " But the tender grace of a day that is dead Will never come back to me."
Yet it did come back to him in the most vivid and exqui- site form in the very poem which ended with this expression of passionate regret. And in "Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean," he showed with a wealth of delicate touches hardly ever equalled in English literature, that he not only did know what they meant, but knew that they meant the lassitude of a passionately tender memory, and a very feeble hope.
Again, Mr. Watson, to our minds much the greatest of the younger poets, shows the same power in the lovely song which we publish in another column,—the power of waving a wand which transforms the last verse, for instance, into something quite different in nuance of effect from the first, though made up of almost the same words, and which enables him to distinguish the "oaks that mused" from "the pines that dreamed,"—the " pondering " of the one from the " reveries " of the other ;—though he, we think, is quite as great in his stronger effects as he is in his delicacies of dis- crimination, his "First Skylark of Spring" combining much of the rapture of Wordsworth with the delicacy of Shelley.
But the little book we have just received, printed we suppose in the Cambridge University Press of the United States, and not in England, and printed with what appears to be an odd design of showing how minute are the author's subjects, by perching them up at the top of the page of which half, or more than half, is left blank,—endeavours, consciously, we imagine, to aim at showing that the author desires to fix attention on the fineness of his touches, and to contrast that fineness with the singleness and concentration of his drift. What could be more delicate in its way than this little fern-song P- " Dance to the beat of the rain, little Fern,
And spread out your palms again, And say, ' Tho' the sun Hath my vesture spun, He had labored, alas, in vain, But for the shade That the Cloud hath made, And the gift of the Dew and the Rain.'
Then laugh and upturn All your fronds, little Fern, And rejoice in the beat of the rain !"
And yet what more single in its effect ? Our poet is not so strong, however, in the focussing of his effects when he flies high as be is when he aims low. His fern-song is perfect because the whole effect is meant to be, and is, as delicate and fragile as its shading. But in many of these minute studies he aims at bringing down Heaven to earth, and then he is naturally not so successful in concentrating a universe in a dew-drop, as he is in impressing on us the effect of the frail and thirsty fern. For instance, here is a quatrain on "The Incarnation":—
" Save through the flesh Thou wouldst not come to me—
The flesh, wherein Thy strength my weakness found A weight to bow Thy Godhead to the ground, And lift to Heaven a lost hiunanity."
That is good, but inadequate, while the fern-song is perfectly adequate to its subject. The attempt to stamp the oneness of what is beyond As on the heart, without any elaboration, requires a stronger and intenser genius than this delicate Boeton poet can command. But how happily he can deal with a breath of feeling, at once rt fleeting it and yet engraving it on the mind, as the impression of a seal is taken upon wax, this charming little poem on " Playmates " shows :— "Who are thy playmates, boy ?
My favorite is Joy,
Who brings with him his sister, Peace, to stay
The livelong day.
I love them both; but he Is most to me.'
And where thy playmates now, 0 man of sober brow ?
`Alas ! dear Joy, the merriest, is dead.
But I have wed Peace ; and our babe, a boy, New-born, is Joy.'"
This is the first time that we have seen in the New England poetry that disposition to dwell on evanescent feelings and perceptions which has been the great charac- teristic of the better English poetry of this century. For the most part the best New England poetry has been clear in outline, almost severe, singularly simple and distinct in form. But in this new poet, while we see the effort to stamp an individual thought on each poem in all its etrength, there is combined with that effort a delicacy of shading which shows the growing richness of the inner life of New England society with singular force. The poetry, which was almost Puritanic in its crystalline form, is becoming suffused with all the glow and complexity of our European life. It is true that it still retains its main charm- terietic of that eagerness for some dominant thought which made Emerson's verse so ambitions and generally so cold and transcendental. But here the keen outlines are filled up with all the fine shades and delicate colours of a self-conscious and refined sensitiveness such as the genius of Puritanism knew, only to despise.